Little things that mean a lot
It's the little things that make Maceo Baston a valuable addition to Maccabi Tel Aviv - things like his willingness to play inside and help out on defense, his readiness to subjugate his ego and allow more offense-minded teammates a place in the limelight, and, in general, being the glue of Maccabi's interior defense and its last line of defense.
It's the careful observer and afficionado of the subtleties of the hardcourt game who truly appreciates his contributions, because Baston goes about his business quietly and efficiently, without drawing much attention to himself.
Maccabi feels that the 2.06 meter, 27-year-old's superb athleticism and shot-blocking ability will help shore up a defense that betrayed the perennial champion far too often last season. If Maccabi is to achieve its goal of making it to this year's Final Four at Yad Eliahu, then Baston and an improved defense will be among the key factors.
Baston, a University of Michigan graduate, is one of few players who will admit that, "defense is really my first love." When needed, however, he can also score, as witnessed in a 25-point explosion in Maccabi's losing effort against Nahariya and his high school teammate, Stevin Smith, last week.
Baston and Smith starred together at Grady Spruce High School in Dallas, Texas. According to Smith, "I tried to convince him to play college ball with me at Arizona State, but all he could think about was following the Fab Five."
Lured by the dream of following in the footsteps of the fabulous Michigan team that played in two consecutive NCAA championship games in the early 1990s, Baston began his college career in the fall of 1994.
He played four years for a Michigan team that had moderate success, registering a solid but unspectacular career. Baston rebounded, defended well and scored about 12 points a game, but he mostly played third fiddle to higher profile performers like Robert Traylor and Maurice Taylor (both currently in the NBA) and Louis Bullock (Malaga of the Spanish league).
After college, Baston was picked in the later stages of the 1998 NBA Draft (58th overall selection) by the Chicago Bulls, which considered him a marginal prospect.
Baston spent the 1998-9 and 1999-2000 seasons with Quad Cities in the CBA, hoping to develop his game. "The CBA was really my coming-out party," says Baston.
In his second year at Quad Cities, he upped his scoring average to 15 points a game and was named the CBA's Defensive Player of the Year.
Over the past three seasons, Baston continued to develop his overall game, playing one season with Montecatini in the Italian league and the past two seasons with Joventut in the Spanish league. In Europe, as opposed to during his college days, he was often called on to be his team's main weapon on offense. In Italy, he averaged 20 points a game; in Spain, he scored around 16 points a game. At the end of last season, he had a brief stint with Toronto in the NBA, appearing in 16 games.
Today, Baston shows an assertiveness - both on offense and on defense - that was not seen during his Michigan days. "It was in the CBA and Europe that I really gained confidence in myself and my abilities," he claims.
Maccabi Tel Aviv pursued Baston intensively during the summer of 2002. "In terms of athleticism, shot-blocking ability and willingness to play inside, Maceo was one of the very best players we saw in Europe," explains Maccabi assistant coach David Blatt. "We also liked his versatility, consistency, overall attitude and the potential we feel he has to get even better," Blatt adds.
Baston considered Maccabi's offer last year, "but it seemed that every time I turned on CNN, there was another bomb blast in Israel," he says.
Instead, Baston continued for another year in the Spanish league, in deference to his family's wishes, particularly those of his father, who was the person Baston was closest to before his death this past year.
Baston finally made the move to Maccabi this season, when it seemed to him that "the terror attacks have let up somewhat.:
For a team like Maccabi, which has various scoring options, one of Baston's main assets is, as Blatt describes it, "a willingness to occupy a small area of the court on offense."
But, within his limited area of operations, Baston is amazingly effective: Ninety percent of his field goal attempts are taken close to the basket, where his experience and excellent understanding of the game win him good position and make him a consistently high-percentage scoring threat.
On the other hand, says Blatt, "Maceo plays defense all over the court."
As Baston sums it up, "I'll do whatever the team needs from me on a given night. If they want me to focus on defense, I'll do that. If they want me to help out more with scoring, I'll be more aggressive on offense."
So far, in the early part of the season, Baston has more then fulfilled Maccabi's expectations of him, though defense still remains a weakness for the team. If Macabi does make it to the Final Four this year, Baston's quiet, subtle contributions on the court will be a fine example that little things really can mean a lot.